Afghanistan Female Delegation Negotiates Face-to-Face with Taliban in Historic Oslo Meeting

OSLO, Norway - Earlier this week, it was widely reported that the first all-female delegation of Afghan women led by Parliamentarians Shukria Barakzai and Fawzia Koofi, met with Taliban representatives in Oslo, Norway to discuss women's rights, with a particular focus on the need for reform in how women are treated within Taliban controlled areas of Afghanistan. The desired outcome of these negotiations was the protection of the gains women’s rights activists had achieved.

"Afghan women defended their rights with courage," Barakzai said. Their demands at this initial meeting were about "safeguarding the democratic values achieved in the last decade."

Given the historically hardline position that the Taliban has exerted over women in Afghanistan in terms of their rights to self-determination, education, and freedom of expression; these talks were a momentous milestone in a road that is still fraught with peril and has many miles to be travelled toward achieving any future power-sharing agreement.

These groundbreaking talks happened in the midst of a country trying to reassert its identity after decades of external and internal military and religious turmoil. An environment which help to foment a level of religious conservatism which promulgated the harshest and most appalling acts of human rights abuses. With the encroachment of ISIS and its extremist’s tactics, most of which make the Taliban seem rational by contrast; ideas and dogma previously held sacrosanct are being reevaluated.

It is within this context of the Arab proverb “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” that new alliances are emerging as Kabul and the Taliban begin to explore a peaceful end to the ongoing conflict. These current talks can be seen as an extension of negotiations hosted by Qatar a month earlier between militants and an unofficial Afghan delegation. Although, Afghan women have been members of parliament for a number of years, these progressive talks provided them with a seat at the table whereupon negotiations affecting all of the citizens of Afghanistan were being discussed.

It was reported that about a dozen women attended the negotiations, although most chose to hide their identities for fear of reprisal. Last year Barakzai was targeted by militants and narrowly escaped a suicide bomb attack with minor injuries. Despite this, she continues to push for women’s rights and praised the relative ease of these talks in part due to the election of President Ashraf Ghani, a prominent supporter of employment and education rights for all Afghan citizens, regardless of gender.

It's too early to tell how much of an impact the unofficial meetings will have, but ideally these historic negotiations will be a turning point in Taliban/women relations and will pave the way for many more similar exchanges.

Contributing Journalist: @SJJakubowski
Facebook: Sarah Joanne Jakubowski

Qatar: Conciliators, Regional Superpower, or Simply Another Wealthy Arab Nation?

sheikh tamim bin hamad al-thani amir of qatar e-u. high representative for foreign and security policy and Vice president of the european commission catherine ashton in doha, qatar

sheikh tamim bin hamad al-thani amir of qatar e-u. high representative for foreign and security policy and Vice president of the european commission catherine ashton in doha, qatar

DOHA, Qatar - An internationally renowned nation which was once known only for its pearl-fishing has become a major global player. Pumping out nearly 2.3 millions of barrels of natural gas a day which gets shipped around the globe as LNG, it is in the top 25 producers of oil and gas. (Source: Forbes) 

Unfortunately, it is also currently at the center of the FIFA scandal that is reverberating around the world, yet this is not the topic of discussion here.

In the 1940s the nascent country’s oil and gas industry was developed by Western nations as they continued to implement colonization strategies that included primary control of natural resources. This all changed in the 1990s when Qatar exercised greater control of the profits from its oil and gas industry thus transforming it into one of richest countries in the Emirates.

The government recognizes that shifting from a major global supplier of oil and gas will be a long and somewhat protracted process. But, the proactive open-market policies being instituted by the government is helping Qatar to become both a major financial hub in additional to a luxury tourist destination. At the start of 2015, Qatar’s economy was ranked a score of 70.8 according to the data tracked, which means that it is the 32nd most investor friendly economies in the world. With this type of recognition comes the ability to not only exert influence, but also encourages criticism as in the case of allegations of impropriety with the award to host the 2022 World Cup soccer games to Qatar.

Owing to economic diversification, investors from different parts of the world have taken a keen interest in doing business with the country as well as establishing corporate headquarters. The ramping up of foreign investments in infrastructure, finance and banking, products and services, etc. being delivered by these foreign corporations prognosticates some excellent job opportunities in Qatar, and is one of the main reasons that it was chosen as a host country for the games.

Qatar is often regarded as a study in contradictions and is known to be significantly more liberal than many of its neighbors. Apart from Saudi Arabia, the state of Qatar is the only Middle Eastern nation to adopt Wahhabism as its official state religion. The religious demographics in Qatar seem to support both the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood and the militant Hamas movement, and the internecine conflict between the two is quite complex and sometimes terrifying. At the moment the ‘tug of war’ raging inside the Muslim world consists of two sides. The Salafi jihadis―or hardcore Wahhabis, who are financed and supported by Saudi Arabia versus the Muslim Brotherhood who are supported by Qatar on the other.

For years Qatar has been supporting and propagating the Muslim Brotherhood's agenda in different parts of the Middle East and North Africa through its Al Jazeera television network. Though this may seem partisan at first glance, history reveals a more nuanced story, one in which Qatar has maintained a very diplomatic approach towards an increasingly global religious dilemma. Qatar's ability to act as arbiter and play the role of conciliator was demonstrated in its role in achieving the 2008 ceasefire in Lebanon according to the online news site Asharq Al-Awsat.

Unfortunately, the world’s eyes are trained upon Syria and the tragedies that are occurring within its borders, and though Qataris are working behind the political scene to help support Syrians to establish a post-Bashar Hafez al-Assad governance, these efforts toward stabilization are not obviously visible. As with much that occurs in negotiations, what is seen in the public eye is rarely what occurs behind the scenes, and in this context Qatar always positions itself to ensure that its interests are preserved. One of the main motives and interest in facilitating peace in Syria is the hope that a more moderate form of Islam will prevail in a new Syria, and if successful, may help to garner a bigger seat at the table of powerful Arab nations.

The initiatives taken thus far reflect Qatar’s desire to continue in its role as conciliator in the global economic and religious amphitheater. Qatar hopes that by making greater strides with this goal through an open job market, flexibility in accepting the customs of foreigners within limits of decorum, and negotiating for an air of tolerance, balance, and acceptance will ultimately serve to change external perceptions. From the highest levels of government to the ordinary Qataris, there exists a desire to be counted amongst the most developed and advanced countries in the world, and thus the nation hopes to break the stigma of mistrust and judgment that plagues almost every Muslim nation today.

Middle East Correspondent:  @Vinita Tiwari

ISIS Continues to Exterminate Yezidis, Yet Mainstream Media Muted in Coverage of Atrocities

no to terror protests against isis genocide of yzides, photo by kurdistan photos

no to terror protests against isis genocide of yzides, photo by kurdistan photos

IRAQ, Nineveh Province - Charlie Hebdo, a weekly magazine based in Paris, France which pilloried religion (Catholicism, Islam, and Judaism), the racist rants of extreme right entities like the nationalist National Front Party (NF), among other topics, and professed to be both secular, atheist, and left-wing in its political stance was the target of two terrorist attacks, the first in November 2011 and subsequently in February 2015.

The presumed motive for the attacks was terrorists’ response to a number of controversial Muhammad cartoons it published. In the second of these attacks, 12 people were killed, including former editor Stéphane Charbonnier and several contributors. (Source: Wikipedia)

The savagery of the latest attack coupled with the seemingly incomprehensible response by terrorists to what those in the West would consider ‘freedom of expression,’ garnered worldwide attention. The result was that news outlets around the world reported on, dissected, discussed, and speculated about this horrific event for months after the attack.

As an online media publication we understand and accept the nature of news gathering and publishing; however, as journalists and editors we should also be sensitive to appearing partisan to the point of ignoring other equally compelling news stories. Such is the case with atrocities being committed by Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) against Iraqi citizens, most notably against the Yezidis.

News outlets from Turkey, Bugun and Internet Haber, both reported on an Anatolian Agency and Anadolu Ajansi (AA) story about a two-day panel “Ethnical extermination against Yezidis and Christians in Iraq” hosted on 8 February 2015 in Iraqi Kurdistan’s regional capital Erbil at Saad Abdullah Conference Hall. It was a chilling story of several Yezidi women who escaped ISIS captivity. Although the story was widely reported on across the Middle East, the same could not be said of mainstream Western media.

Iraqi President Fuad Masum attended the panel and spoke about the violence of ISIS militants. “The ISIS violence in Iraq is a crime against humanity and it is no different than what Nazis did in Germany. So far, ISIS killed 5,000 Yezidis, captured 5,000, and forcibly displaced 350,000 people of the Yezidi community including their children. The crimes against Christians are similar. The cruelty that Yezidis and Christians underwent is rarely seen in the history,” he said.

According to an AA report on Internet Haber, the women who escaped ISIS captivity spoke on safeguarding their identity to prevent retaliation by background hiding their identity for their safety by using code names. 17-year-old “Vaha” who was kidnapped along with her family by ISIS while they were trying to escape from the Tel Azer village in Sinjar in Northern Iraq told of how the militants beat her for long periods and tortured everyone without distinction of age.

The militants then separated them in three groups - men, women and young girls, and children. “They brutally killed 17 men in an open field before us. Those who were killed took their last breathe looking at their families,” Vaha said.

She said among those who were killed were her brother and her uncle. The 23 women abducted were taken to Mosul, where they joined other captives which eventually grew to 500 captives.

“We did not have food for 10 days. They were rude to people and they attacked women. We were very afraid and we did not know what to do,” she said.

A group of 20 women including Vaha were sold to a man named Abu Layd. At the place they were taken, each were given to an ISIS militant.

“I wanted to resist the man who wanted to take me. I did not want to be separated from my friends. But he beat me and took me away. I was raped and beaten every day,” she said in tears. ISIS militants bought and sold women like a piece of merchandise, or even gave them to each other as a gift.

“I have seen a 50-year-old man taking away a 5-year-old girl. They took the little girls, but none of us know what they did to them. Because they were adding something to our food, so, affecting our consciousness. Nevertheless, they were doing whatever they wanted to us,” Vaha said. “One day, the area around Mosul was under airstrikes, and the guard at our door left. We were able to escape late that night.”

21-year-old Hezal Mirzo who also talked at the panel said she witnessed many Yezidi men being executed by firing squad.

“Throughout the three month of captivity I was raped numerous times. They gave medicines to pregnant women to abort their children. They liked it when we suffered,” she said.

After staying in Mosul for a while she was taken to a school in Tel Afar. “At every different place we were taken, a different man raped us. If we resisted, they added some medicine to our food making us lose consciousness,” she said. “I had the hardest and filthiest days of my life there. We ask United Nations, Iraqi and Kurdish authorities to rescue our people from ISIS captivity. We continue our lives here, while ISIS continues to persecute more people.”

The human rights abuses perpetrated against the Yezidis, also befalls Christians and Muslims who refuse to acquiesce to ISIS, and yet this violence slips quietly unnoticed and under reported in mainstream media. In fairness, there are a few news outlets such as PBS News Hour and the Daily Mail that choose to cover the severe conditions in Iraq under the tyranny of ISIS; and the Voice of America (VOA) has recently produced a story covering the human rights abuses in Iraq, especially of the persecution of the Yezidi community, but it is not enough.

The kidnapping of the school girls by the violent, radical Islamist group Boko Haram in Nigeria received greater attention than the inhuman and reprehensible treatment of the Yezidis women and girls.

Though people were rightfully outraged and reacted strongly to the Paris terrorist attack, these atrocities that are occurring across the Middle East, like those the Yezidi community are experiencing, have not receive the same amount of coverage.

Yes, terrorist attacks and killings in Middle East have become routine occurrences, and perhaps because of this have lost their media cache; but just because an atrocity happens repeatedly or on a large scale, does not absolve us in the West of the responsibility to be more vociferous in our denouncements.

Contributing Journalist: @ElvanKatmer
LinkedIn: Elvan Katmer

Is Saudi Arabia on Path Toward Balance?

kingdom tower saudi arabia, By faisal photography

kingdom tower saudi arabia, By faisal photography

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -  Geographically located at the geopolitical crossroads of the Middle East and the West, Saudi Arabia has come a long way from being known only as a religiously constrained nation dominated by hardline conservatives focused more on internal governance to the exclusion of Western opportunities because of their possibly corrosive influences.

King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, 90, who died on 23 January 2015, was also known as 'the reformer' king, and under his decade long reign the socioeconomic transition strategies had already yielded positive results as the country became more open to doing business with partners that sometimes were at odds with the country's religious precepts. This fact was underscored by the number of world leaders and top dignitaries who visited Saudi Arabia to give their condolences.

The newly enthroned King Salman welcomed U.S. President Barack Obama, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, Japan's Crown Prince Naruhito, Spain's King Felipe VI, Jordan's King Abdullah, Denmark's Crown Prince Frederik, Dutch King Willem-Alexander, and the United Kingdom's Prince Charles and others and will hopefully continue Saudi Arabia's embrace of a path that leads out of the religious cocoon that has historically governed it.

Though still a monarchy, the Saudi Arabian government is relatively stable, and the influx of new business partners is helping this thriving society to transform its image of being a totally Islam-centric culture to one that at least entertains and hosts people from different nations and backgrounds. This includes, doing business with Western companies that sometime send female executives to manage large scale projects.

However, Saudi Arabia is a nation that is built on Islamic principles and protecting these principles remains its cornerstone and governs every transaction. For instance, though Western women may come to work there, they are still expected to observe the decorum and customs that are unique to Muslim society. Even First Lady Michelle Obama was criticized in the media for not wearing an Abaya or head scarf during a recent visit; however, it was noted by the Associated Press that former First Ladies Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush have also appeared in public meetings Saudi royals without an Abaya.

Even still, Saudi Arabia is realizing unprecedented global, economic and employment growth as people embrace the reality that it is simultaneously the ultimate ‘Hajj’ destination, but also for non-Muslims it is a country where they can achieve economic success, explore great job opportunities, or just visit as a great vacation destination.

Socioeconomic Transformation:  In 1970 Saudi Arabia introduced the first of a series of the ongoing five-year development plans. The long-range plan had in scope the implementation of a modern infrastructure, fostering the development of business relations with other nations, and making the kingdom an affordable place for one and all. As a result of assiduously following the scope of this program over a 30-year period, today Saudi Arabia has been transformed into one of the most modern and sophisticated Arab states.

The table below provides a high-level summary of some of the major social and political breakthroughs that were achieved as a consequence of the Social Economic Transformation policies.

Government Goals and Objectives

Achievements

2001, December (Fight for Values & Saving the grace of Islam)

The government calls for the eradication of terrorism, and publicly states that terrorist acts are explicitly prohibited by Islam. The government also takes the unprecedented step of issuing ID cards to women.

2002, May (Sabotaging the rule to “offer pain”)

The criminal code underwent major revision that included ban on torture and right of suspects to legal representation.

2005, November (The World knows the worth now)

The prestigious World Trade Organization (WTO) gives a green signal to Saudi Arabia's membership after 12-years of negotiations.

2009, June (Making relations rock-solid)

U.S. President Barack Obama visits Saudi Arabia as part of a Middle East tour. The visit was aimed at increasing U.S. engagement with the Islamic world.

2012 June (Let the souls breathe and get their dreams)

Saudi Arabia agreed to allow women athletes to compete in the Olympics for the first time. This decision was against the background of speculation that the entire Saudi team might be disqualified on grounds of sex discrimination.

2014 February (Banish the “Crude”)

New anti-terrorism law were introduced to fortify the suppression of violent groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda.

2014, June-September

Activists for women's rights have become more vocal and public in their demands for equal rights for women to fully participate in society, in particular, being able to drive. Among other platforms, social media users continue to push the boundaries and test the limits of freedom of expression.

The Employment Affairs:  Saudi Arabia currently possesses more than 25% of the world's oil reserves. The oil and gas sector in Saudi Arabia has created astounding wealth for the country, and has encouraged investment by other nations that buy oil and gas from this Middle East powerhouse. Experts believe that with social reforms that continue to take place, will encourage nations not traditionally inclined to do business with Saudi Arabia to reconsider. Such expansion should result in the creation of many high-paying job opportunities for foreign and domestic workers alike; a fact evidenced by Jeddah being named one of the top livable cities in the world.

Persistent Concerns:  Saudi Arabia still has much to improve upon when it comes to human rights especially with regard to meting out punishment. In this respect the country is still in a religious cocoon of ultra-conservative, orthodox ‘Wahhabism' which has been Saudi Arabia's dominant faith for the past two centuries. This religious interpretation of Islamic law takes a literalist view of Qur'an and the tenets, and thus continues to condone heinous acts such as "death penalty or stoning for adultery and fornication, flogging and amputation for stealing, and punishments of retribution, are sanctioned by the Qur'an and are unchangeable," legal scholar Shahid M. Shahidullah explains. Wahhabist interpretation of "sharia law is the exclusive foundation of criminal justice" in Saudi Arabia. (Source: VOX)

Frontline PBS featured an Analyses of Wahhabism and its rigidity that "has led it to misinterpretation and distortion of Islam, pointing to extremists such as Osama bin Laden and the Taliban." Indeed, many of the perpetrators of the September 11th air attacks against the U.S. were instigated and perpetrated by Saudi nationals, and indeed many people still believe that the government and constituent nations in the region harbor extremist.

Between 2014 and 2015 Saudi Arabia has more than redeemed itself with tangible efforts and resources in the fight against radical Islamist groups like ISIS and al Qaeda, two of the greatest terrorists threats facing the world today. The "Saudis have sent jets to bomb the group in the Syrian regions where it [ISIS] first gained strength and broader influence. The result is that Saudi Arabia now has useful intelligence on the groups the U.S. will be arming and training within Syria later this year. Saudi Arabia is one of only three Muslim countries (the others are Turkey and Qatar) that would allow the U.S. to set up rebel-training camps on its soil." (Source: Huffington Post)

In summary, Saudi Arabia has realized vast improvements and it has boldly embraced the challenges that face a country that struggles to balance modernity with tradition; and though many may yet criticize this nation, its increased presence on and involvement in global affairs heralds its desire to move toward balance.

Middle East Correspondent:  @Vinita Tiwari

ISIS, Al Qaeda, Houthi Rebels Compete in Yemen

Local Fighters Team with al-Qeada, Abyan Province, Yemen, Photo by Joe Sheffer

Local Fighters Team with al-Qeada, Abyan Province, Yemen, Photo by Joe Sheffer

YEMEN - ISIS has infiltrated Yemen, a country already flooded with terrorist groups. The Syria-based terror group, known for its extreme brutality and shockingly successful recruitment of outsiders, has gained a tentative foothold alongside the Al Qaeda forces already present.

Al Qaeda remains the dominant presence, but the competition for recruits and support may sway in favor of the more financially-appealing ISIS. This friction between the two groups can spell increased trouble for civilians in Yemen and elsewhere. In-country fighting and instability has escalated, as is evidenced by a gun battle between the two groups last month and White House analysts fear the competition will become a race to see who can hit US soil first and hardest. (Source: CNN)

Another key player in the Yemeni crisis is the Houthis, a rebel group demanding greater control of what they claim is a western-controlled government and protesting unequal distribution of resources. They belong to the Zaidi branch of Shia Islam, also known as Fivers, a sect of Islam almost exclusively present in Yemen. They are from the Shi'ite minority similar to the Twelvers found mainly in Iraq, Lebanon and Iran and are known for being most similar to Sunni Muslims in matters of religious law and rulings. They do however, believe in the concept of an Imamate as being essential to their religion, which makes them distinct from Sunnis. (Global Security.org, "Zaydi Islam”, by John Pike)

Pressure from Houthi fighters resulted in the resignation of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. His departure triggered thousands of Yemeni citizens to counter-protest the Houthi actions. (Source: BBC)

Yemen, although among the world's poorest countries, has strategic political and geographical importance. The terror activity poses a danger to the U.S., who is often the target for attacks. In addition, it is a gateway for foreign fighters to go to Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, providing ample recruiting opportunities for ISIS and other terror groups. The U.S. government had found allies in Yemen officials and was working with their government to develop counter-terrorism methods. Now that the shaky government has been obliterated by rebels and terrorist groups compete for dominance and destruction, the future of Yemen is unclear.

Does Middle East Harbour Fears of Oil Drying Up?

oil-capital-photo-by-wolfgang-schlegl.jpg

MIDDLE EAST - Will the world soon experience a major oil and gas crunch? Many global countries are gradually becoming self-dependent and planning to adopt new drilling technologies in the hope of discovering their own oil reserves. The Middle East, which has long maintained its stature as the world’s largest oil exporter, now feels great pressure. Someday the oil reserve will dry up under the burden of consumption of a vast volume of barrels of crude oil per day.

Governments and those involved in framing policies in the Middle East are now aware that the world’s oil fields are depleting at a rate of 9.1% per year, which is terrifying. It has been reported that if nothing is done to overcome the threat, then oil production could fall 38% in only five years. A recent report in the Guardian revealed that conventional sources of oil are expected to continue to decline and future oil demands will need to be satiated through more unconventional resources.

This is a matter that requires immediate attention for most of the oil producing nations in the Middle East. What if the economic highs created by the precious oil drop down to nothing? This very fear has brought economic diversification to the center stage. The only saving grace that can protect the global population from experiencing this painful outcome is to introduce a diversification strategy.

The concept of economic diversification is to improve the GDP. Economic diversification is a process that generates a growing range of economic outputs. This diversifies the markets for exports or income sources outside of domestic economic activities (i.e. income from overseas investment). The Middle East and its constituting nations have adopted the concept, where previously they were characterized by the lack of it.

Other sectors will now stand with pride and make their own contributions to the GDP and thus lead to a flourishing fiscal health. At the moment, private sectors are the first visible output of the economic divergence protocol.

Price and demand are two of the most important aspects of the global economic system and fiscal diversification is one way to escape the complex phenomenon. Countries and their respective economic systems are experiencing problems such as low growth rates, lack of public and private incentives to accumulate human capital, lack of competition in manufacturing, and similar problems. This is something that has coaxed the countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council to opt for economic diversification.

Economic diversification can reduce a nation’s economic volatility and increase its real activity performance. With oil consumption going up at a very steep rate, diversification is something that can pacify the fear in the Middle East associated with its diminishing oil reserve.

The answer lies in the relationship between fiscal divergence and private sector economic reforms. The theory suggests that diversification will help increase the private sector and will lower the contribution of the public sector to a certain level. One of the reasons for more private sector involvement is that a part of economic divergence relates to the issue of the foreign direct investments. A report from LSE suggests FDIs can bring in capital, create new jobs for people living in the Middle East, encourage development of new technology, and formulate management methods. These will help the countries build and expand their societies and knowledge communities.

It can safely be said that the potential of the Middle Eastern nations to attract FDI is severely limited without a well-functioning private sector. The growth of the private sector in the overall GCC economy has not only brought a fresh breath of air but has also created ripples in the employment market as a whole. The premise is simple: Take the revenue from oil and gas and invest it in other budding industries and sectors.

The expectation of fiscal diversification is freedom from the monopoly of oil and gas revenue on the GDP, and newcomers entering the economic arena. The Gulf would soon be relieved from the fear of depleting oil reserves and could still manage the country with a growing private sector. There would be well-paying jobs in the Middle East and the standard of living would still be maintained.

Follow Vinita on Twitter Twitter: @nahmias_report Middle East Correspondent: @vinita1204

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Islamic New Year 2014 | The Prophet and Kaaba

dubai 2014 new years eve fireworks, photo by robin appleby

dubai 2014 new years eve fireworks, photo by robin appleby

DUBAI, This year, the new Islamic New Year fell on October 24. The date will mark the anniversary of the Prophet Muhammad's journey from Mecca to Medina in year 622. He led his followers over 200 miles across barren desert to escape persecution. At the time, Mecca was a polytheistic city which was viewed by many different religions as a holy center.

The frequent migrations of these many religious practitioners was to visit the Kaaba, which is a sacred stone structure that was once used to house effigies of gods and goddesses and its presence subsequently changed the city into a prosperous trade center.

When the Prophet insisted that there was only one God people were quite resistant to this credence. At that time theKaaba wasfilled with false idols and, furthermore, in the terms of all the Abrahamic religions it is required that a percentage of one's income (if possible) be given to charity. People worried that this new religious edict would harm the economy as well as their pockets.

As the Prophet Muhammad started his life as a merchant and didn't turn to religion until he was in his 30s -- people questioned both his authority to preach and his sincerity in proselytizing these new values. Consequently, he was threatened and began to fear for his life. The Prophet had heard that the city of Medina would be a sanctuary for the new followers of Islam and thus moved to there.  The first groundswell of converts to Islam were rapidly growing, and thus he found Mecca to be more welcoming.

The year of this journey, called the Hijra marked the beginning of the Islamic calendar. While the Prophet's birth and the founding of the Islamic religion are important, it was decided that the show of devotion in the face of adversary that a more powerful symbol representative of Islamic value should be adopted as the first of the calendar year.

Eventually it became safe for the Prophet Muhammad to return to Mecca. This pilgrimage, called the hajj, became required for all Muslims to make at least once in their lifetime during the 12th month of the Islamic calendar.  However, exceptions are made for those unable to travel. As well as being a personal journey, it is also a way to encourage solidarity amongst Muslims and people from all over the world from all backgrounds came and continue to gather together to give allegiance to Allah.

The Muslim calendar is on a lunar cycle versus the Gregorian calendar used by much of the West. Thus, the start of a month is marked by the first sighting of a crescent moon, and each new day begins at sundown on the previous, versus a new day starting at sun up in the West. Because the 12-months of the calendar differ in length from the more widely used Gregorian calendar, Islamic dates and holidays vary in comparison from year-to-year.

The New Year is recognized in relatively quiet way, with prayers and reflections, but as with the other major religions and in honor of their holidays, we wish our Muslim readers Sana sa'eedah!